The Los Angeles lakers sent another purple-and-gold dagger through the defenses of the Boston Celtics on Sunday at the Forum. And though L.A.'s 106-103 victory by no means broke the heart of the defending NBA champions, it certainly drew a little blood.
Do you think the Celtics, who pride themselves on their grace under pressure, enjoyed blowing a 17-point third-quarter lead? Think they were happy watching Magic Johnson dribble under, around and through them for driving layups, then follow up with victory dances that would be banned in the NFL? And what could be less fun than seeing the Lakers' most recent acquisition, Mychal Thompson, play like a veteran down the stretch, in stark contrast to a Celtic bench that collectively produced two fewer points than Thompson (10-8) and the same number of rebounds (4)?
"They're the best team in the league right now," said Celtic coach K.C. Jones. And what does that make one Earvin Johnson, called Buck by most of his teammates? "The best player in the league right now," said Boston guard Danny Ainge. Case closed on both counts. When the Lakers beat the Celtics 117-110 in their first meeting, in Boston Garden on Dec. 12, Magic scored 31. His line on Sunday read 39 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds and at least three routines that would've commanded attention on Dance Fever. He's so excited. And he just can't hide it. He'll be the MVP, and he's going to like it.
Let's call a 20-second timeout, though, simply to reflect on the beauty of this rivalry. Boston and L.A. entered Sunday's game with identical 37-12 records—best in the league, of course—and, chances are, only a couple percentage points will separate them at the end of the regular season. It has been suggested that the NBA would be better off if these two marquee teams met every other week, but the fact that they play only twice each season is precisely what makes their confrontations so special.
February 23, 1987
The Lakers and Celtics have a kind of healthy contempt for each other these days. And it's likely to percolate with the addition of Thompson, an all-NBA jivemaster who's bound to infuriate Boston somewhere down the line, if he hasn't already. Asked after Sunday's game if Celtic forward Kevin McHale deserved the technical foul he drew in the third period, Thompson said, "Darn right he did. He's always complaining. He should've gotten four or five technicals."
L.A.'s beads-for-Manhattan deal with San Antonio went like this: The Lakers got Thompson, a legitimate center-forward who will provide much-needed rest for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as well as steady support for A.C. Green; in return, San Antonio got Petur Gudmundsson, Frank Brickowski, a first-round draft choice this year, a second-round pick in 1990 and an undisclosed amount of cash. Sound like a lot? Well, Gudmundsson (back troubles) may never play again. Brickowski never could play. The Lakers probably wouldn't get much help picking late in the first round of a relatively weak college draft this year, and the world may end by 1990. As to cash, that's never a factor for Laker owner Dr. Jerry Buss. "If San Antonio needed money, we would've sent them money," said Larry Bird. "But to go and help the Lakers like that is just terrible."
The Thompson deal particularly galls the Celtics because of the continuing absence of Bill Walton, last season's savior now turned casualty. Walton underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle on Dec. 17 and isn't even jogging yet; the latest word on his return is maybe late March, maybe not at all. "I think the guys are going with the theory that Bill won't be back," said Celtic reserve Rick Carlisle. "Then, if he does return, it will be that much better." The Celtics were unable to make a deal before Sunday's trading deadline, so the first big man off their bench is still Greg Kite, who will never be mistaken for Walton—or Mychal Thompson, for that matter.
But that lack of depth has been the story all season for Boston, which has gone almost exclusively with a Fab Five of Bird, McHale, Robert Parish, Ainge and Dennis Johnson, a lineup that is more than enough against most teams. Indeed, the Celtics swaggered into the Forum with their usual optimistic arrogance—or is it arrogant optimism?—having begun a Western road swing with easy wins earlier in the week over Denver, Golden State and Portland.
In the first 157 seconds of Tuesday's 119-105 win against the Nuggets, McHale scored Boston's first 11 points by posting up a helpless Danny Schayes. Said McHale later, "The game plan was for me to score the first hundred and twelve, but I got a little tired." After a 134-112 Celtic rout at Golden State on Thursday, Warrior forward Larry Smith, his jaw still puffed up from morning dental surgery, commented, "The game was worse than the root canal." In the final tune-up for the Lakers, Friday's 131-116 win at Portland, McHale (Mr. Inside) scored 37 points and Ainge (Mr. Outside) scored 26, including three three-pointers. Boston's offense was working to perfection. Parish and McHale were unstoppable inside, Johnson and Ainge were hitting the open jumpers when the ball came back out. And Bird was there to spackle the cracks, scarce though they were.
The Lakers, meanwhile, have also been unstoppable—24 of their 38 wins have been by more than 10 points—but in a different way. Their offense has been a relentless relay race in which Magic always controls the baton. Despite nagging injuries, James Worthy has been steady and, at times, brilliant; Green has matured rapidly at power forward; Byron Scott is having his most consistent season at off-guard; and Abdul-Jabbar has adapted well to reduced minutes (32 per game) and reduced field goal attempts (incredibly, he's only fourth on the team in that category). But without Magic waving his wand over every X and O in the Laker game plan, the Lakers would be merely above-average instead of top-drawer. Rarely has one player done so much for one team in one season.
"I was ready to become a scorer," said Magic of his new role. And coach Pat Riley was ready to let him. He's now averaging 24.3 points per game, almost 6 more than his career average, yet he has not surrendered a bit of his playmaker role—he still leads the NBA in assists, with 11.4 per game. "I'm one of those players who can just turn the scoring on and off," he explained. During a 113-108 win over Indiana last Friday, a game that every other Laker was taking lightly in anticipation of Boston, Magic somehow scored a quiet 40 points. "He had that many?" Worthy said after the game. "Well, that's how it's been all season. He's had no trouble becoming a scorer."
It was no surprise, then, on Sunday when the Magic Man's shot from just inside midcourt nestled into the basket to beat the third-period buzzer. More than just marking the game definitively as the Magic Show, the three-pointer cut a Boston lead that had been 17 points at 5:41 of the period to just 81-77. The fourth quarter would be a war of attrition, just as it had been in December at Boston Garden. And once again L.A. would win it.
Meanwhile there was a fascinating subplot under way involving Abdul-Jabbar, who had only two points after three periods. He had not been held below double figures since Oct. 18, 1977, when he was ejected in the first two minutes of a game against Milwaukee for punching Kent Benson. That's a remarkable streak of 742 games.
Abdul-Jabbar doesn't like to talk about the streak, but his teammates, as well as Riley, desperately want to preserve it. When it appeared in jeopardy earlier this season against Milwaukee, Magic, who was on the bench with a knee injury, said he considered checking into the game just so he could get the big man the ball.
On Sunday the game stayed tight throughout the final period. At 6:22 Kareem hit a skyhook from the right baseline for his third and fourth points, and 36 seconds later he did it again. It was reminiscent of the first game in Boston Garden when the Celtics disdained the double-team on Abdul-Jabbar and he burned them with six fourth-quarter field goals. Now he had six points, but the Celtics still led 91-90. The battle raged on. Thompson was playing the kind of tough defense on McHale that is essential to his Laker job description. McHale would finish with a team-high 23 points, but none after 5:21 of the third period; later he would wonder why he hadn't shot more down the stretch. Worthy was doing an equally strong job on Bird. In the past, Michael Cooper has often checked Bird in crunch time, but on Sunday, Worthy proved worthy of the task.
The teams continued to match baskets. With 1:29 left, Magic penetrated on a break, conjured up Earl Monroe, and did a 360-degree spin around and past Ainge for a layup, drawing a foul along the way. He missed the free throw, but L.A. led 98-97. Parish dunked off a pick-and-roll from Bird, but Abdul-Jabbar returned the favor with a short bank shot. He now had eight points, and the Lakers led 100-99. Then it was Magic's turn. He ran the clock down, calmly waved Thompson away, then waved him back into position to set a pick. Dennis Johnson blocked Magic's path to the basket, so he stepped back and released his old-fashioned, ball-in-the-palm set shot. It went in, and the Lakers led 102-99. Parish got another dunk off a pass from McHale to cut it to 102-101, but then Abdul-Jabbar was fouled, and he went to the line for two shots with 14 seconds left. When you've scored some 36,000 points, two free throws may not be that big a deal, but on the line were a 10-year streak and an important game.
He made the first. His palms were sweaty, he said later, but his goggles were clear. He made the second. He had his 10 points and the Lakers had their victory.
Magic is in a basketball class by himself right now, clearly the front-runner for an MVP award that only two guards (Bob Cousy in 1957 and Oscar Robertson in 1964) have ever won. "I honestly did not feel bad the last three years when Larry won it," said Magic. "If you feel a guy deserved it, then you can't say anything." This year? "Well," he said with a smile, "maybe it's my turn."
And maybe it's the Lakers' turn, too. After all, no NBA team has repeated as champion since the Celtics of 1968-69. Waiting for Walton is now like waiting for Godot. And on Sunday the Celtics fully fathomed the depth of their depth problem, which is profound indeed. All together now: Shall we count the Celtics out?
"Well, the last time I looked," said McHale, "it didn't matter who wins the February championship. It's who wins the June championship that counts."